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C-Suite Engagement via Social: Why It’s Not a Choice Anymore

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If you haven’t picked up Charlene Li’s new book, The Engaged Leader: a Strategy for Your Digital Transformation, I highly recommend you do so. Charlene is a well-regarded author and researcher on leadership issues, and if you’re an executive, it’s a must-read.

In a Forbes article recently, Li told a priceless story that I think epitomizes the attitude of many 60-something execs these days: “A CEO once told me, ‘I don’t believe in this digital stuff. I believe in leading people by going around, shaking their hand, looking them in the eye, and connecting with them.’ I said, ‘That is absolutely fantastic. I love that you have that personal approach. But you have 10,000 employees…”

You can’t possibly shake 10,000 hands without digital tools—yet there is still resistance from the C-suite on using digital channels to “be social” either with their employees or their customers. In my opinion this is a huge mistake, and one that needs to be rectified sooner rather than later.

The executive who continues to remove him or herself from digital engagement will eventually have that decision bite them (and their company) where it really hurts—the pocketbook.

Li answers some of the common complaints that I hear from executives on this issue, such as “I don’t have time,” “It doesn’t replace face-to-face,” “It’s marketing’s job,” and my all-time favorite, “Who cares what I had for lunch?”

These excuses don’t carry water anymore because today’s executive has to know what’s going on in and around his or her company and/or industry at all times. And the only way to do a good job of that is to learn to navigate the digital landscape and use those tools to listen, learn and engage with people at every level.

Gone are the days when a CEO could navigate his ship from the sanctity of his office, seldom speaking to employees or customers (except via a podium or a newsletter). Effective leadership requires a new, more personal level of engagement. People expect more from company leadership than a photo and a blurb in the annual report or a quote in a press release. They want to see and hear executives talking about issues that concern them. They want to know that the company they’re doing business with (or that they work for) is led by real people with real values that align with their own principles and ethics.

But does that mean we’ll have to spend half our day on social channels making meaningless small talk?

Of course not—but we can no longer delegate engagement to marketing and sales. We need to get our hands dirty and use social channels to first listen, then engage by adding value.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many people will engage with you vicariously by watching how you engage with others. The CEO who steps out from behind their brand logo to take part in social conversation accomplishes two things: humanizing the brand and lending social credibility to their companies as thought leaders. And his or her influence is scaled by the “silent” engagement of others who watch but don’t immediately jump into the conversation.

According to the 2014 Social CEO Report sponsored by Domo and CEO.com, 68% of CEOs have NO social presence on the top five social networks, and only 69% who have Twitter accounts are actually tweeting.

These are abysmal figures—but there are some executives who are pioneering leadership in the social space, and Hootsuite™ names some shining examples that I think every executive would do well to emulate, especially these two:

Richard Branson: Founder and Chairman of Virgin, Richard is very vocal on LinkedIn and Twitter. Plus, he not only has millions of followers on those channels, but he actively follows and engages with thousands of people. His personal brand has lent a human face and touch to Virgin and also sets him apart as a business leader whose first priority is giving value.

Richard’s LinkedIn Influencer blog is chock-full of insights for CEOs, and I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment from one of his posts, Behind the Scenes: How I Write Blogs:

“Every CEO should make a big effort to get online. It is a superb platform for seeing what people really think about your company, and gives you a voice to engage with them. Those businesspersons who embrace the rapid changes of the Web are those who will be in the best position to benefit from them. But more than that, they will have a blast along the way.”

Doug Conant: Chairman of Avon’s board of directors, and founder and CEO of ConantLeadership, Doug is very active on Twitter. What I really like about Doug’s approach is that he’s not afraid to use new channels (he posts Instagram photos too), and he’s genuine. He thanks people who retweet him and isn’t shy about being personable. Plus, he’s actively involved in promoting social media use in business, and helping leadership understand the value of relationships through integrity. From his blog post: Leadership Words to Live By:

“Begin every interaction from a place of ‘how can I help?’

When you start this way, your earnest desire to be supportive shines brightly. And, when you follow through by listening and being unmistakably present, people know you are truly there for them, not just paying them lip service.”

More executives need to embrace digital channels as a way to lead by example because there’s no turning back the clock to stay in our comfort zones. Social media is deeply embedded in the lives of most people you do business with every day. In order for companies to stay competitive, social engagement must become a top-down strategy.

Those who adapt to social engagement will drive more business and stay competitive—those who ignore it will not. #RonR

This post was originally posted at Inside CXM

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